Driver found guilty of 2nd degree murder in 2016 fatal crash

Wheeling (Source: Mecklenburg County Sheriff's Office)
Wheeling (Source: Mecklenburg County Sheriff's Office)
Putnam (left) and her best friend (Photo from friend)
Putnam (left) and her best friend (Photo from friend)

CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - A man accused of driving drunk, speeding, hitting and killing a pedestrian in January 2016 was found guilty of second-degree murder in a Mecklenburg County court Tuesday.

Gregory Wheeling Jr will serve 13-to-16 1/2 years for the January 17, 2016, death of Kelli Putnam, who was killed when she was struck by a vehicle while walking down South Boulevard.

Investigators say Putnam was walking on South Blvd with her boyfriend after a Carolina Panthers game. Her boyfriend testified that the two spent the afternoon at the Panthers playoff game, then stopped at the Gin Mill for a drink before walking to a restaurant to get something to eat.

Prosecutors showed jurors videos of Wheeling's black Audi wearing in and out between cars. People who were in the car with Wheeling said he was driving fast.

During the victim impact statement. Putnam's boyfriend said the time since Putnam's death has been agonizing.

"Kelli Sue Putnam was the love of my life. She was taken from me. You'll never understand the torture my life has been the past two years," Bronson Stewart said. "I just can't put into words what you got today does not equal what we've been through and what we're going to have to continue to go through for the rest of our lives."

Stewart added, "you took away the love of my life - the woman I was going to marry."

Putnam's mother also had words for the court.

"I'll never see my daughter again. I'll never see her get married to Bronson. I'll never see her children. I'll never get to enjoy anymore life with her," Amy Johnson said. "She was beautiful, she was independent, She was caring. She was loving."

Johnson said, "I believe it was arrogance that killed my daughter."

Wheeling's blood alcohol content was .14. The legal limit is .08.

Because he has a prior DWI conviction, Wheeling had a restriction of .04

The state's crash reconstruction expert said Wheeling was driving between 51 and 63 mph in a 35 mph zone when he hit Putnam. Police said the impact sent the victim's body 191 feet. A prosecutor told the jury that the distance is the same as a half of a football field.

The medical examiner said Putnam suffered multiple injuries, including to her head and pelvis.

Putnam's boyfriend told jurors he was crossing South Boulevard. Putnam was behind him.

Bronson Stewart said he saw Putnam take her last steps. He said the impact threw her up in the air - as high as the power lines - and her body, limp when it landed, kept tumbling and tumbling and tumbling.

Wheeling's defense attorney contended that Putnam was intoxicated and darted out onto the road. Putnam's blood alcohol content was .20.

During final arguments Monday morning, Attorney George Laughrun said at .20 - mental and physical factors are impaired. Laughrun told jurors that Putnam didn't "stop, look, or listen."

Laughrun reminded the jury that witnesses testified that the victim suddenly ran across the road, and the defense's crash reconstruction expert determined that Wheeling didn't have enough time to react to avoid Putnam because she stepped off the curb suddenly.

Laughrun said second-degree murder was the second highest charge that can be levied against a person. He said prosecutors didn't prove a case warranting a murder charge.

Jurors could also consider the lesser included charge of involuntary manslaughter. The jury began deliberating shortly before 1:30 p.m. Monday after Judge Yvonne Mims Evans read them the jury instructions.

Laughrun told jurors "not every tragedy is a crime. This is a tragedy."

During their closing arguments, prosecutors said Putnam's life was lost because of the defendant's actions.

Assistant District Attorney Desmond McCallum said "he was speeding. That's what caused it. He was intoxicated. That's what caused it."

He pointed out that the damage to Wheeling's vehicle was on the driver's side - suggesting the victim was already on the road but Wheeling was driving so fast and was so impaired, he didn't see her.


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